Great Horned Owl Release at Cedar Hill Ranch

by Joyce and Mike Conner

In the afternoon of June 2, 2020, three young Great Horned Owls were gathered and placed in a large dog carrier.

1:  Sara Prepares the Owls for Their Journey

Their destination was Cedar Hill Ranch, Gause, Texas, for release into the wild after being saved and rehabilitated by All Things Wild Rehabilitation.

Later that evening they and their human volunteers arrived at Cedar Hill Ranch.

2. Owls in Carrier
3: Conners and Sara Ready for a Release

After a short drive to a meadow with ponds surrounded by mixed forest, the birds were released one by one. Conner grandchildren were visiting the ranch that day and were able to participate in the release.

5: Sara Releases Another Owl
4: Sara Releases an Owl
6: One of the Released Owls

One owl posed for photos high up in a nearby tree before heading farther out into his new home environment.

Little Foot, 6/2/2020

Another owl, four weeks younger than the other two, stopped in a nearby cedar tree, and posed for a long time. We later learned that his human caretaker had named him “Little Foot”.

After about an hour, the humans returned to the ranch house and left the owls to live out their days wild in the area.

Update

Six days later Little Foot appeared at the Cedar Hill ranch house begging for food by clicking his beak and screeching.

Watch Little Foot asking for food.
8: Little Foot Returns, 6/8/2020

We were advised by the All Things Wild staff to make noise with pots and pans so that he would not be comfortable near the house and would return to the woods. Although he flew away that evening, he reappeared the next morning. This time he flew directly up to us and pecked at our legs. This behavior indicated to everyone that he was not ready for release in the wild, as he was still relying on humans to provide food to him.

We were then told to lure Little Foot into an enclosure to hold him until Sara was able to get him that evening. Joyce tied a piece of raw chicken to a string and led him slowly several hundred feet into one of our chicken coop enclosures.

9: Luring Little Foot

At one point Little Foot grabbed the chicken and tried to get it away from Joyce. Although hungry, he was surprisingly strong.

10: Little Foot Grabs the Chicken Piece
11: Little Foot Waits in a Chicken Coop Enclosure

Sara and friends arrived that evening. They took Little Foot back to the All Things Wild Rehabilitation Center where he will live in their “flight” cage. They will feed him only live food for about a month to get him ready for a second release attempt.

12: Sara and Friends Recapture Little Foot, 6/9/2020

Can You Help?

All Things Wild Rehabilitation (ATW) is looking for places to release animals to the wild. Usually, they like a site to have a source of water and for landowners to be willing to put out food for the young animals for about 2 weeks until the animals learn how to forage on their own. However, we have been a release site five times and have never been asked to put out food.

If you find a wild animal that you think needs help, visit the ATW website at and review “Found An Animal?” information. If after reviewing that information, you decide you need to contact the center about the animal, call 512-897-0806.

If you are interested in becoming a release site, the following information is from their website.

How to Become a Release Site

The goal of wildlife rehabilitation is to return the bird or the animal to the wild. We release the rehabilitated animals on private property with permission from the owner. All Things Wild is always looking for good release sites. Here are our dream criteria for releasing most small mammals and raptors:

  • Acreage, preferably 10 acres or more, with woods,
  • No high fences,
  • Water year-round,
  • Away from busy highways, communities, houses, and lots of people,
  • Accessible by vehicle or hiking,
  • Willingness to do a soft release* if necessary, and
  • An appreciation of wild animals.

If you would like to offer your land as a release site for ATW, please email allthingswildrehab@gmail.com.Thank you!

*A soft release is when food is left out for released animals until they become accustomed to foraging in the wild.

More about Great Horned Owls

If you’d like to learn more about these amazing birds, please download this PDF fact sheet that Joyce made to help educate her grandchildren, based on information she found on the web.

Quail Release

by Ann Collins and Catherine Johnson

Catherine Johnson and I had a spectacularly rare treat this week. We were visiting the Bird and Bee Farm, where Catherine has created a marvelous wildflower garden. If you haven’t seen it, you really must go. It is full of color, texture, and scents. Guinea fowl and chickens roam free, gobbling up grasshoppers and other noxious critters. Catherine even shares the overflow (flowers, not grasshoppers!).

Bobwhite quail. Image by @JBL via Twenty20

Gene and Cindy Rek have turned their hundred-acre property into a prairie paradise. You may already know they sell laying hens of every description. They also sell Rio Grande turkeys, guinea fowl, and Peking ducks.* This week they added another member of the feather family: Bobwhite Quail.

After an early morning trip to Bastrop, they came back with two flax boxes with breathing holed punched in them. Inside were thirty pairs of breedign quail. Gene carried the boxes out in some tall grass and gently set them down. He cut the strings on box #1 and carefully lifted the lid, revealing an almost-solid carpet of mottled brown feathers.

Just as we were taking in the scene, it suddenly erupted and flew away. Not at all what I was expecting!

Here’s what we saw:

The next box we were somewhat prepared for, but it was just as exciting when it was opened and thirty quail breathed a sigh of ecstasy and got their first taste of prairie freedom.

While we stood, adjusting to this miracle of Nature, the birds immediately started calling to one another with their signature whistle of, “Bob White!”

Later we saw several of them on the pond margins, trying to make sense of this incredible gift they had been given. Hopefully, most will survive to repopulate an area that was once their native habitat before every scrap of nature was cleared away for cattle, monocultures, and civilization, before pesticides, GMOs, and chemicals.

This is supposedly quail. Photo by @Tereza via Twenty20

These birds were all full grown, but future plans include day-old chicks to be raised in the barn and released later this summer.

There will be a coming out party when they are old enough, and all of you are invited to the celebration. Cindy will let us know when it is. It will be fun: a step back in time and a step forward toward restoration of a native prairie, right here in Milam County.

Mark your calendars!


*The farm is open only by appointment, and they are booked many weeks ahead. Please call them at (512) 808-8533 to reserve an opening! You can drop by and look at the gardens at any time.

Milam Wildscape Project May Update

by Catherine Johnson

Bird and Bee Farm is open by appointment only, and the new bathroom nearly complete. We also have a new certification sign to go with all the other signs on the project.

It is already too hot to work anytime but early or late in the day.  The creatures and plants are thriving, though. 

Coreopsis, purple bee balm, and yarrow

The gold coreopsis in the photo above must go, because it is smothering other plants. Email me if you want some!

The garden is a beautiful Wild mess. 

This new arch is ready for vines.

We are glad for all our volunteers and donors. All materials for the structures below were donated.

Master Naturalist Kim Summers taking a break under the new shelter. The arch is shown at right.

Spring in Rose’s Garden

by Catherine Johnson

The Milam Wildscape Project is within the 100-acre prairie Bird and Bee Farm. Mr. Rek’s parents originally owned the land, and the garden is named after his Mom, Rose. 

Herbs and native plants

The garden is bursting with wildflowers, natives, bushes, trees, and vines. Milkweed will be planted soon. Many creatures call the garden home. 

Camouflaged garden kitty
Helping out with bug control

Two new additions are a large metal sculpture for photo ops and LED lighting that covers the entire Wildscape! 

Charming photo background for visitors
New lighting

A new garden room is under construction with donated tin from Donna Lewis.

Charming new gazebo from donated material

Before the shutdown, the Rek’s sold over 1,000 chickens in 21 days. Everyone wants to go back to nature😊.  

Easter eggs of many colors

They will reopen the end of May and are also incubating Rio Grande turkeys now. Available later this year will be custom chicken houses.

These utility poles that are being used for erosion control have also been donated.

Aside from future nature programs, we plan to have a Master Naturalist table on some weekends.  If any chapter members would like to earn Volunteer Hours for working in the Wildscape, email me. You will able to work ALONE.  

Cindy Rek found these huge buddleia plants for only three dollars!
Weeping lantana

Controlled Burn at Cedar Hill Ranch

by Joyce and Mike Conner

Shortly after purchasing Cedar Hill Ranch in 2013, we started learning about how much a controlled burn would help to reduce the thick Yaupon understory from much of our forested area (mainly from Billy Lambert, Tim Siegmund, and Bobby Allcorn – TPWD). A reduced brush understory would allow surface plants to take hold, leading to much more productive land for feeding and sheltering the native wildlife, and improving the soils. As managers of our wildlife land, we looked forward to the time when a controlled burn could be conducted safely and productively. But the land was too dense in the first years and we had difficulty getting the surface clear for grasses – there was too much forested land and we could not manage to get enough of it ready for a controlled “grass” burn. So, Mike and family members spent years reducing Yaupon and Eastern Red Juniper by chemical and mechanical means. In more recent years, we started hearing about a “forest” burn solution.

Texas Parks and Wildlife staff

The day finally arrived for our first forest burn on Thursday, February 27, 2020. But it did not come without many hours of preparation, both on the part of Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel and us landowners. Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel must be trained as fire specialists – to understand and monitor winds and humidity, understory leaf and grass litter, snags and overhanging branches, safety zones, water and fire supply equipment, clothing and on-ground equipment, team management, safety of all people involved – the list is lengthy but necessary to ensure safety of participants and neighboring households, animals, land, and structures. Finally, they had to notify EMS and Fire Station personnel about the burn. The landowners worked with TPWD biologists to identify the acreage to be burned, called the burn unit. Bobby Alcorn then developed a detailed and comprehensive burn plan. This plan described the area to be burned, the type of burn to be conducted, and the weather conditions necessary, and it gave a comprehensive analysis of the safety issues surrounding this particular burn unit. In late 2019 Mike Conner cleared a 10-foot bare sand firebreak and also cut down dead trees from the edge of the burn unit and moved them 30 feet into the interior of the unit. Toni Aguilar, TPWD Regional Controlled Burn Coordinator, and Bobby Allcorn, local TPWD Biologist, visited the site several times to monitor and approve Mike’s progress. Mike then notified and invited all the surrounding neighbors and also members of El Camino Real Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists to attend.

Volunteers

On Thursday morning 7 Master Naturalists, one neighboring landowner, one Native Plants Society of Texas member, and 6 Texas Parks and Wildlife fire brigade personnel (a total of 15 individuals) arrived.

Everyone was given a map of the rectangular 50-acre tract that was to be burned so that everyone was familiar with the area. We volunteers were then given specific explanations and instructions about our activity and duties by Edwin Bowman, burn leader-in-training.

Drip torches

And then our wait began. A burn in a forested area with a mostly closed canopy or dense brushy understory needs a brisk wind, low humidity, and dry conditions. As the optimum weather circumstances neared, we moved to “Corner A” where we were given more instructions and then split into teams. Mason Conley’s team would work from Corner A and move south, Tim Siegmund’s team was to work from Corner A and move west. Since the team moving south was supposed to have less smoke, all of the women volunteers chose that team, leaving all of the men to face the worst smoke. (As it turned out, the smoke had a mind of its own and did just the opposite!) Each team had at least one walkie-talkie.

As each team started, Toni headed to the interior. We could see her occasionally and the fire that followed her path. (She was joined by different staff members at different times.) Bobby was in charge of watching the wind and humidity with his special equipment. He was in constant communication with all of the other leaders. A quick change in wind or sudden drop in humidity could cause unexpected movement of the fire, so this was a crucial task.

Learning how to torch

Surprisingly, the filled fire torches were heavy to carry in one hand (about 8 pounds). Once lit, the fire starter would “drag” the torch behind them, dripping the liquid flame in the leaf litter. This could be dangerous if you did not keep moving ahead of the flames now burning right behind your feet, or if you became distracted and turned, creating a circle around your feet of flame! Another danger could be created when you “tossed” the flames into the woods at various locations. As we volunteers waited for our turns to carry the torch, Bobby reminded us to also check across the safety zone for embers – a sign that the fire had jumped the barrier and could go rogue. This was difficult to do because the fire within the burn zone was mesmerizing! Luckily, we had Jay Whiteside (TPWD) driving one of the water trucks along the perimeter as he constantly watched for any potential problem.

Watching the torch

Pamela lucked out and was able to experience dripping her fire torch while simultaneously riding in a utv! (Disclaimer – This was done under the supervision of one of the fire specialists.)

Laying down the burn line

When the entire perimeter was torched, we regathered at the parking area for a review of the day. In the end, we learned that we had one more very important thing to do – check the entire perimeter for fire/glowing embers within 40 feet of the firebreak. Everyone decided to stay for this last job, so it was fairly quick work. When an ember or burning log was found, it was tossed farther into the interior. When Mike was told that there was one snag at the farthest corner of the burn unit that had to be taken down, he rushed back to the barn and got his bobcat. If left on its own, the snag could release embers that might travel across the firebreak and ignite a whole new part of the forest – creating a serious fire hazard! At the snag, we watched as Edwin and Mike took turns with the chain saw and the bobcat until the snag fell. Mike then moved the broken snag farther into the burn unit. After hosing down the snag’s embers, the day was now officially over (although Mike and I would need to re-visit the site over the next few days to confirm that all was still well).

Managing the burn line

We learned a lot about controlled burns that we had not previously learned from several workshops, seminars, and research. We also learned that this first burn was only the beginning. The forest would need to be burned several more times over the next years, as only some of the brushy understory was actually destroyed. Much of the yaupon and junipers will either regrow or will need another fire to finally kill it. Because the temperature, wind, and humidity must be fairly precise, it will always be difficult to plan the exact time and day for this activity. But, at least now, we feel more confident that we are able to perform it.

The burn line, burning

Below the credits are more of the many pictures taken during the day. Thanks to everyone who supervised and helped!

Credits:

El Camino Real Texas Master Naturalist Volunteers: Joyce and Mike Conner, Donna Lewis, Liz Lewis, Lisa Milewski, Pamela Neeley, and John Pruett.

Neighbor Volunteer: Fred Russell

NPSOT Volunteer: John Glos

TPWD Staff: Toni Aguilar, Bobby Allcorn, Edwin Bowman, Mason Conley, Tim Siegmund, and Jay Whiteside

The burn line
Ensuring the burn line stays to the interior
When fire jumps into the trees
We thought the day was over…
…only to find there was one more crucial step
The snag has to be removed
Pamela hoses down the snag stump
Lisa helps to hose the embers
The next day’s evidence of the burn